On March 10, 1991, I gave up alcohol and the other drugs I used daily to quiet my ever-present unease. I quit because the small benefits of altering my consciousness were completely overshadowed by the panic attacks, black outs, ill health, embarrassment, and general stupidity engendered by drugs. Since that date, I have taken one Vicodin to allay discomfort following surgery. On two occasions, I’ve had accidental mouthfuls of drink. Once was during a social evening when I left my glass of ginger ale on a side table and later accidentally picked up an abandoned scotch and soda. The second was at a New Year’s party a half-dozen Januaries ago. At midnight, the hostess handed out flutes of champagne but assured me mine was sparkling apple juice. It wasn’t. The alcohol hit my tongue and I sprayed her dining room-and a couple of astounded guests-with a powerful mist of champagne. There were heartfelt apologies proffered all around. I was never invited to her house again.
I don’t regret the decision to become abstinent, although I am absolutely positive my creativity has suffered from it. There is a reason so many writers, musicians, painters and performing artists of every stripe use drugs. Psychoactive substances do free one from inhibitions and the constraints of accepted social norms. This is why peyote, marijuana, hashish, mescaline, opium and alcohol are found in so many religious ceremonies. Under the influence, the gods allow themselves to be seen. Is this freedom good? Yeah, sometimes it is. It lets us entertain thoughts we might repress or simply not have, and if we are smart and able and patient, we can translate these thoughts into something viable, something pleasing and perhaps even original.
On the other hand, we can become so spectacularly boring and cretinous that our friends and family flee. We are dullards who develop horrible conditions like cirrhosis of the liver or esophageal varices where we bleed to death from the throat. We swell up with ascites. We get hepatitis and strokes and cancer and bleeding ulcers. We kill off brain cells and drive drunk and walk in front of buses. We accidentally or on purpose maim and murder people and commit acts for which we cannot atone. We die.
The problem with drug usage is that it becomes cumulative. When I first started drinking, a couple of shots of Jack Daniels would do me fine for an entire evening. When I stopped, there wasn’t enough alcohol in the world to make me feel good. I had devolved from Jack Daniels Black to Popov vodka, which is made in New Jersey and does not involve potatoes or other natural products. Popov feels and tastes like boiling tar going down one’s throat, but it’s cheap. My pill intake grew as well. I seldom did street drugs, but my taste and need for pharmaceuticals grew and grew. I shook. I could not drive or sign my name. I had cold sweats and nightmares. At one point, four doctors were prescribing me Xanax, Valium, beta blockers and opiates.
Often, I couldn’t sleep and had to ingest enough to knock myself out. This is not a good habit when one is in a relationship because your spouse or partner will quickly discover the real bond is between you and your drugs of choice, and that this union is more profound than any that can be forged with another human.
Only twice—once recently and another time a decade or so ago—has the desire to use reappeared full force. In both instances I thought it through. I came to the conclusion that, tempting as a one-time fling might be, the likely return to addiction was simply not worth the very temporary peace of mind alcohol and drugs might offer.
I’m pretty sure I made the right decision.